The Marines Step Up Training for the Complexities of Iraq

Hollywood helps simulate Iraq to give marines a chance to understand what to expect.

Marine Corps recruits train at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

Marine Corps recruits train at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

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CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF.—Inside the new $2.5 million Marine Corps Immersion Training Center, situated in a former packing plant in the middle of an old tomato patch, there are bazaars with tables full of brass lamps and teapots. There are courtyards, too, with old chairs, backgammon tables, and clotheslines with laundry strung across them, courtesy of a Hollywood set designer. There are also wagons filled with propane tanks, blood-stained alleyways, and motion-detection scent machines, which pump the smell of dung through trash-laden streets.

The training center is at the heart of a new Marine Corps effort to not only give its troops a heightened sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Iraq but also teach them some hard and fast lessons about ethical decision making. As two Camp Pendleton-based marines face court-martial later this month in connection with the 2005 Haditha killing of 24 civilians, including women and children, the Marine Corps is increasingly aware of the importance of preventing lapses in the moral judgment of stressed-out troops that can result in the death of innocents and turn Iraqi families and towns against American forces.

In one training center room, the images of women and children caught beside a fighting insurgent are projected on a wall. To add to the confusion, the Iraqis happen to be standing in front of a wall that leads to a bedroom. If troops don't "take a knee" before they shoot, they could send a bullet through the wall, injuring a child in the next room, instead of angling their shot up to hit the insurgent and perhaps the roof.

The troops also wrestle with the decision to shoot a woman, as a role-playing female suicide bomber walks up to marines and detonates a vest laden with explosives, sending tofu dyed with food coloring flying in their direction.

The effect is one of the most realistic training experiences in the military today, say its creators—one that homes in on the ambiguities of this war. "What they are doing is creating chaos," says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who toured the facility Tuesday. "I was really taken aback by the stress level" that the training simulation was able to induce, he added. "This is breakthrough stuff on the ground."

Sgt. William Jones, who helped design the program, says he has seen what the stress created by the simulations can do to the judgment of the marines. He recalls that after losing two comrades during a simulated mission with deafening explosions, one unit entered a village and soon found itself on the receiving end of more gunfire. "After taking two or three casualties, they were wired up," or on edge, says Jones. What happened next, he says, was telling: On approaching a house, one marine "did the whole sticking the gun around the door corner and shooting" inside the house, without looking first to see who was in there.

Immediately, the center's team shut down the simulation to tell the marines what a big mistake they had just made. "We just crushed that whole thing," says Jones. The incident also allowed them to discuss "how are you going to deal with a populace, with people, after receiving casualties?"

Key to the center's teaching strategy is a series of video cameras and recorders. In a control center, trainers and a cognitive psychologist watch as marines make their way through the streets of the mock village. Those elements are vital, says Mullen. "They have this feedback." What's more, he adds, "you don't get to say, 'No, I really didn't do this.' You get to critique bad decisions."

As a result of the training center experience, units have shuffled around team leaders who prove to be less capable during the training, says Jones.

Col. Robert Coates, the assistant chief of staff of the training and experimentation group of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force here, agrees that the cameras don't allow soldiers to remember an incident "like they would like to" but rather as it actually happened. The units can also do the equivalent of a good NFL post-game analysis, he adds. And the center uses a numbered laser tracking system for each rifle, so trainers know exactly who is firing which shots.